Monday, July 22, 2013

John Ferren's Expressionist Paintings in Hitchcock's "The Trouble with Harry" (1955)

With Hitchcock’s characteristic mix of comedy and suspense, it is not entirely unexpected that in 1955 he ventured into the sometimes iffy area of “black comedy” with Universal’s The Trouble with Harry. The film served as the debut for Shirley MacLaine and costarred John Forsythe, Mildred Natwick and Edmund Gwenn; all together a fairly good cast. See, I feel that the trouble with The Trouble with Harry (for me, at least) is that everything is only fairly good. The dialogue was fairly good, the plot was fairly good and the jokes were all pretty fairly good. That’s how I feel at least, you have the freedom to think otherwise of course.

The slightly wonderful thing about The Trouble with Harry is that it’s one of the wonderful films (for me) that has an artist as a main character. Let me do some brief plot summarizing: Sam Marlowe, a “talented” but free-spirited artist in New England discovers a body in the midst of a beautifully lush autumn forest. He later discovers Harry’s wife, and neighbors who all think that they accidentally killed him. The comedy is mainly situational because the characters are more fazed by the inconvenience of the whole thing rather than the fact that a man is dead. It’s actually rather charming in parts.
Marlowe's art clutters both the inside and outside of Mrs. Wiggs' store,
creating bold strokes over color across the screen.

Besides having a carefree, friendly spirit, Sam is also an accomplished artist. By accomplished artist, I mean that he’s created a ton of very abstract expressionist art that is featured quite prominently in the film. It fills the inside and outside of the colloquially charming Wiggs’ Country storm, where Sam attempts to sell his works of art. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of abstract expressionism and I’m not going to lie, despite my love of Hitchcock, I cannot make myself love, or even like, this art. I have, however, gained a begrudging appreciation for it and its contributions to the film as a whole. Let me explain.
The Troublemakers in The Trouble with Harry
(L-R): Shirley MacLaine, John Forsythe, Mildred Natwick, Edmund Gwenn

For all its flaws, and there are a few, The Trouble with Harry is one of the films that is sometimes just a joy to watch purely because of the compositions that are created on screen. The setting is the beautifully lush New England countryside in fall, so the screen is filled with rich hues of oranges, reds, and yellows (many of which are fabricated- Hitch filmed The Trouble with Harry on location, but by the time he got there, a lot of the leaves had already fallen). The movie is also filmed in gorgeous Technicolor, which I think makes everything look better. Hitchcock did this purposely. He wanted his black comedy to be filmed with a lovely, bright backdrop to add literal lightness to the sometimes dark jokes.
A view of Sam Marlowe's stand outside the country store

In this respect, the abstract expressionist paintings fit in beautifully because they are more composition than subject-matter. The colorful bold canvases serve the same purpose as the autumn foliage- they add to the film’s composition as a whole and fill it with vibrant colors.
Another view of Marlowe's (Forsythe) outdoor stand

The paintings were all created by John Ferren, a fairly talented artist and a Hitchcock collaborator. Of note, Ferren designed the slightly bizarre Jimmy Stewart nightmare sequence in Vertigo as well as the haunting Portrait of Carlotta. While Carlotta was certainly a lovely painting, the works that appear in The Trouble with Harry were more Ferren’s style. In fact, they were exactly Ferren’s style. While Ferren did prolifically work in Hollywood, he also was an accomplished painter by his own respect and was influenced highly by the likes of the Expressionist greats like Kandinsky and Marc. Some of the paintings are in fact sloppy, even by abstract expressionistic standards, because of the limited time frame of the film’s production. According to Susan Felleman’sfascinating criticism of modern art in the movies, “Decay of the Aura” from thesummer 2011 issue of Jump Cut, Hitchcock turned to Ferren for the paintings for multiple reasons, including the bright color palette, the bold movement and most of all the aura of mystery and disorientation the avant-garde works suggested.
Mrs. Wiggs (Mildred Dunnock) pondering over Marlowe's (John Forsythe)
Expressionist paintings

In this light, Sam’s, or more specifically, Ferren’s works serve a dual purpose in The Trouble with Harry, neither technically essential, but valuable nonetheless: they reflect both the color palette and sense of disorientation in the film as a whole.

It is also worth noting that while Stanley Wright, a local artist in Stowe, Vermont, claimed that he painted many, if not all of the works in The Trouble with Harry, many critics scoff at such a suggestion. Felleman notes that Hitchcock had indeed sparred with Wright, a talented realist painter, during filming, but most likely did not use any of his paintings. It is however, not out of the possibility that a Wright Expressionist painting exists somewhere on screen.
The sketch of Harry shows definite inspiration from Rouault, one of
Hitchcock's favorite artists (see below)

On a secondary note, I once read a brief note on The Trouble with Harry that pointed out the similarity of a sketch Marlowe does of the corpse with the work of Rouault. If you recall, Hitchcock was highly inspired by the work of Georges Rouault, a fellow modern Catholic artist. I noted the striking Rouault imitation in Strangers on a Train earlier. When you really study that sketch of poor, dead Harry you can really see a vague resemblance to some of Rouault’s own charcoals. 
Rouault's Ecce Homo
I’ve included an insert of Rouault’s Ecce Homo, a contemplative look at the suffering Christ that Rouault made around 1940. Felleman noted that in an interview she conducted with Ferren’s widow, Rae Ferren, Rae claimed that she, herself an artist, made the charcoal of Harry.

Marlowe confronted by his own rendered face of death

It’s kind of funny: The Trouble with Harry features art and artists more than almost any other Hitchcock. Yet the pieces in The Trouble with Harry lack centrality to the plot and significant symbolic importance. Because of this, the paintings and artwork in The Trouble with Harry often seems to fade into obscurity. I’ll wager this is because audiences view the pieces in the wrong light. As I stated earlier, Ferren’s paintings are not intended to bear huge significance in the usual sense. Rather, they mirror the gorgeous New England autumn color palette and at the times the general sense of confusion that intentionally pervades the screen. And in this respect, they are-in every sense- beautifully vivid.
Jerry Mathers in his own debut role as Shirley MacLaine's son, Arnie

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